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Opinion

Obama must remind Vladimir Putin of human rights, religious freedom concerns

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has passed a succession of anti-human rights laws curtailing freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Parliament might even pass a proposed blasphemy law that clearly would violate religious freedom. President Obama must speak out.

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This year has featured grim news of serious human rights restrictions imposed by Moscow on Russian society, including religious groups. At their next discussion, President Obama should convey these concerns to Vladimir Putin, reiterating to Russia’s president the need to adhere to universal human rights and religious freedom standards if relations are to progress between our two countries.

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When I was in Moscow in late September as chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, I heard these worries voiced frequently. In my meetings with 30 individuals representing civil society, journalism, and human rights and religious freedom, all feared that Russia was on the cusp of a new cold war on civil society.

Since Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency, Russia has passed a succession of laws curtailing freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Parliament might even pass a proposed blasphemy law that clearly would violate freedom of religion or belief. 

The new restrictions began in June 2012 when Putin signed a law which included a 100-fold increase – more than the average Russian’s annual salary – in fines for unauthorized protests. 

In July, Putin signed legislation requiring foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents” or face massive fines or two-year jail terms for their leaders. Essentially, this declares a group to be a highly suspicious outsider organization. Yet many of Russia’s most vital human rights NGOs rely on some outside financial support

Also in July, Russia’s parliament adopted laws increasing control over the Internet and re-criminalizing certain kinds of libel. 

In November, Putin signed a treason law on the day he told the Presidential Human Rights Council that he might revise it. It broadens the definition of high treason to include acts against “constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity,” potentially making participation in political protests and international organizations punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 

All of this came on top of acts against pro-democratic US entities, such as closing the US Agency for International Development and denying certain radio frequencies to Radio Liberty. 

Recently, Russia’s parliament began considering the criminalizing of blasphemy. A current bill would levy fines and penalties for “offenses against religion and religious sentiment” and “offending religious feelings of citizens.” 

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